Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Power of We

The Power of We


One of the aspects of Chinese life abundantly obvious is the commune in communism. Our lane is a string of dwellings--some "grand" like ours, a small and simple house, some not so grand--our neighbor, her husband and 12 year old son live in a structure roughly 12x14 feet, their only sink out in the lane in front of their front door and roughly ten feet to the left of our front door. We often pay witness to the boy being given a bath/shower/wash as he stands naked in a plastic tub and warm-ish water is poured over him. All the cooking and washing and clothes washing is done at that tub. It can't be easy, but our neighbor always smiles at us as we come and go from our warm house, brightly lit, with its two baths and full kitchen. There is never a hint of animosity. Acceptance is the rule here.

There is a lane community center very near us where forty year old women do line dances to old fifties American hits, most of which I play with the Rockbottom Remainders. There is choir practice every Wednesday and a Chinese variation on an aerobics class some mornings. We all know each other to say hello to -- and of course the Chinese know each other by name. There's the bald man down the street who carries his large number of potted plants out when the weather is nice (he came and doctored a plant for us not long ago, all smiles to see inside our house.) There's the neighbor with the perfectly restored 1943 motorcycle and sidecar, shined to a spit polish. And of course there's the laundry. Everyone -- yes, including us -- hangs their clean laundry to dry (there are no real clothes dryers here, reducing their carbon footprints when most don't know what a carbon footprint even is), so you're able to see underwear styles and sizes, and the next time you see the woman three houses down you can't help but picture the large sized red underwear somewhere buried beneath the other plain clothing. Long underwear. Bra sizes. We know a lot about each other here in Lane 339.

But it strikes me that the power of we is at work, and no more so than when our wonderful Xue (our housekeeper) had her electric bike break down. She arrived to our house having pedaled the heavy bike (smaller wheels than a regular bike). And she explained in Chinese, and some sign language, that her electric bike had broken. Then she pointed to our back garden, where we keep our bikes, and it was obvious she had quickly jumped to the conclusion that we had four bikes and hers was broken, so we would offer her one of our bikes. Which we did. She didn't thank us. She nodded and smiled, and I gave her the key to the lock, and helped her to get the bike out the big steel door that serves our garden patio. And she rode off. I realized it was expected. This is a communal society. If you have a bike not being ridden and your neighbor needs a bike -- bingo, it's worked out. A few days later Xue returned the bike, smiled, and showed us that hers had been repaired. We were part of the we. We were part of a community.

There are exceptions. When daughter Storey broke her ankle last week and we needed a wheelchair to get her down the impossibly long lane, we turned (through our cook) to our community center. Might they, by any chance, be in possession of a wheelchair? (Since there are many elderly about.) Indeed, as we'd guessed they had one. And they were willing to loan it to us: for a fee. Shanghai is where capitalism meets communism and so we had a taste of where the we meets a fee. We borrowed the wheelchair for three days and three nights. Fee: 2 US dollars.
Today, our cook showed up with a wheelchair -- to loan us indefinitely. Someone's mother had used it, died, and it was lying around. How she managed to get it here (she lives WAY across town) I have no idea. But a man showed up, lifted it into our front door and trundled off. No fee.

And so we are learning that people help people here -- sometimes charging, most of the time not -- out of a societal consciousness that instills at an early age that the individual cannot survive without the group. Historically, we are told, this goes back millennium to the spring floods of major rivers and how, without a full effort on everyone's part, the river could wash away farm ground, taking its top soil and rendering it infertile for generations. Or... they could band together, divert the river and protect their food source. Out of the efforts of many came food for the few. Now, thousands of years later, the same attitude prevails. I cannot make it without you.

As much as an American I have instilled in me the notion of independence and every-man-for-himself, I find myself reflecting that both 911 and the current financial crisis has left me feeling this pulsing group agenda--that we need to thinking as a people not as a person. That we need the power of we. That I'm currently living in an example of how this works at the community level so well. I'm not condoning Communism as a political force. There's too much here that can be criticized (just as there is at home!). But at the base level of neighbor to neighbor, door to door, wheelchair to wheelchair, and bike to bike, there is much to be learned and cherished.


  1. very intressting look inside the everyday life of a chinese community. i can almost smell the chop suey!

    reminds me a little - just a little - of how they used to live in east germany. there was always someone who knew someone whose neighbour had a cousin who could borrow the required item from a friends' grandad.

    cheers, sybille

  2. and i hope storeys`ankle is getting better.

  3. Ridley, fascinating and so beautifully written. Kudos. I'm with Sybille, wishing Storey a speedy recovery.

  4. You might be an American, Ridley, but you're also talking about a thoughtfulness of others not uncommon in America not so long ago--just ask Patty's mum.

    For that matter, check out small town Iowa sometime. That world isn't so far away. Neighbors help out neighbors. The invite's on me.

  5. We liked your post.


  6. Jeff:
    I'm with you! As a person who still spends time in small town Idaho and the wonderful world of Missouri, I know from where you speak!

  7. As great an experience as this is for you & Marcelle, I keep thinking that it's even better for the kids. Experiences to remember all their lives...and as you suggest, lessons, too.

  8. sharing this with everyone i know :) hope storey's healing well.

  9. oops :)

    sharing this with everyone i know :) hope storey's healing well.


  10. Ridley, I hope Storey's ankle mends real soon.

    Great post. :-D

    I come from a 'socialist' country, Australia. You wouldn't believe how some Americans - all women, strangely enough - look down their noses at me at me an sneer as they say "Oh, yes: you come from a socialist country". I correct them with 'democratic socialism, but not so's you'd notice with all of the American crap that invades our shores." They're never quite sure what to make of that, but it answers the sneer. :-D

    Before Federation - just over 100 years ago, helping neighbours and community was the Aussie thing to do. Most places back home, it still is - but you take your chances in the cities. During the recent fires, a workmate of my best friend gave a shocking account of how she and her sons barely managed to escape with their lives minutes before a racing firefront destroyed their home in upstate Victoria. One SUV careened past her and several other cars on the smoke choked road (no visibility), hit another car then flipped on its roof and burst into flames. The firefront was looming large in the rearview mirrors and the drivers looked at the wreckage, then fire, then their kids: they had no choice, but drive on. The fire was on them in minutes. They eventually made it to a pub six miles away that was serving as a shelter. The shock was total - they couldn't even remember their names for sometime or any other details. The country community however, outdid itself. They donated clothing, food, water and anything else that was needed. More than that, they gave endlessly of themselves to comfort strangers. I know that it's not the regular everyday sharing of things that Ridley describes, but it stands out in recent memory. I think country anywhere exemplifies 'neigbourhood' belonging.

    Happy Thursday, everybody...

    PS: The part I didn't mention about that woman's harrowing drive to safety was that the little convoy of cars had to stop briefly while a cow crossed the road in front of them. It was on fire. That image alone, gave me bad dreams that night...

  11. Many people share with their neighbors...Americans share with the world.

  12. "Americans share with the world" ???

  13. Aside from the women line dancing, this reminds me a lot of my grandmother's little alleyway neighborhood.

    I'm afraid this type of communal living has been lost in a lot of America and we're poorer for it.

  14. Marianne--You're so lucky that the only thing that those jealous and insecure bitches can think of to say to "bring you down to their level" is about your native country--and erroneous, at that. :)